Fish and Aquatic Conservation


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Dr. John Halver


Dr. John Halver, a decorated World War II officer, pioneered scientific research in fish nutrition.
Credit: D.C. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery & Archives
Dr. John Halver, a decorated World War II officer, pioneered scientific research in fish nutrition.

Dr. John Halver is widely known as "The Father of Fish Nutrition" because of the many notable achievements and discoveries he made in the area of fish nutrition. He was a professor emeritus in nutrition in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington. But this was not the only professional hat Halver wore through his long career. Of note was his position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as director of the Western Fish Nutrition Laboratory in Cook, Washington. Halver oversaw the design and construction of the laboratory from 1950 through 1953. He then equipped it, staffed it, and directed the research for the next 22 years. The work at the laboratory included the study of protein, vitamins, minerals, comparative biochemistry, and metabolism of fishes. It was here that Halver and his staff made breakthrough findings in the nutrient requirements for Pacific salmon.

John Emil Halver was born in Woodinville, Washington, in 1922. Halver descended from Finnish and Danish-Norwegian stock and lived in the same town as his pioneering grandparents in western Washington. He grew up on a farm caring for milk cows and developed a milk route to sell his product, showing early in his life that he was hard working and innovative. When he was older he worked summers on a tug boat, and it was the sort of labor he wanted for the rest of his life. But his mother had another plan in mind. She had him apply for a college scholarship. He won the scholarship by demonstrating how to use wheat straw to make paper, and started his studies in 1940.

Halver received a B.S. in chemistry from Washington State College (Washington State University) in 1944. He was called to active duty in Europe with the U.S. Army as an infantry officer shortly after D-Day. He returned from World War II a highly decorated captain. After the war, Halver earned a M.S. in organic chemistry from Washington State University in 1948. Halver taught for a stint while also doing graduate coursework in the Department of Agricultural Chemistry at Purdue University in Indiana in 1949. A Ph.D. in medical biochemistry from the University of Washington followed in 1953, and it was during his doctoral studies that Halver commenced his career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, establishing the Western Fish Nutrition Laboratory. He directed the lab until 1975.

Using fish as his experimental animal, Halver developed a notable research diet named H440, the H for Halver, and 440 for the number of tries to get it right. H440 became the basis for test diets used for trout and salmon primarily, but many other fishes too, to determine nutritional requirements, specifically vitamins. Later H440 was modified to determine amino and fatty acid requirements of fish. As a nutritional biochemist Halver was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in 1978, for his work tracing and curing the cause of liver cancer in hatchery rainbow trout. He determined the cancer was caused by aflatoxin B1 in peanut meal used in the fish diet. Peanut farmers customarily washed newly harvested peanuts and stored them wet for later processing. Halver suggested the peanuts pass on a conveyor belt through a drying system before storage. This prevented the growth of the organism that produced the cancer-causing toxin.

Changing hats in 1976, Halver joined the faculty at the University of Washington, becoming a full professor of nutrition. During his time in the research arena both with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the University of Washington, Halver and collaborators made notable discoveries in fish nutrition that benefitted conservation and commerce.

Halver learned about the relationship of vitamin B-12 with anemia in salmon and how vitamin C affects responses to disease and trauma and identified other water soluble vitamin requirements for trout and salmon. He described specific signs of deficiency in fish; developed amino acid test diet requirements for salmon; and determined the role of omega-3 fatty acids in cell membrane structure. He also established a fish feed quality control program for testing hatchery feeds.

John Halver’s work in fish nutrition endures in print. This book was first published in 1972, and its third edition came out 30 years later.
Credit: Academic Press
John Halver’s work in fish nutrition endures in print. This book was first published in 1972, and its third edition came out 30 years later.

By any measure, Halver was a very successful scientist. By this measure — the amount of information that he shared with the scientific community — his work was profound. He published over 200 scientific articles and wrote or edited several books including three editions of Fish Nutrition. His peers in his professional circle in the American Fisheries Society took note: in 2000 he was inducted into the National Fish Culture Hall of Fame at the D.C. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery and Archives in Spearfish, South Dakota. The induction gave him the moniker, "The Father of Fish Nutrition."

Dr. John E. Halver — a man who consulted some 60 foreign governments on fish culture and served his country in war on foreign shores — passed away at the age of 90 at his home in Seattle, mere miles from his place of birth. But Halver's contributions to fisheries conservation live on, in the work carried on daily by fisheries professionals in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and around the globe.


Ann Gannam, Ph.D., is a Fish Nutritionist at the Abernathy Fish Technology Center in Abernathy, Washington. She wrote the story "From Horse Heads to Pellets,"
in Eddies, Fall 2008.


Last updated: December 30, 2013